No-No Boy “Empire Electric”

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2023

True stories and high adventures from Asian-American history.

No-No Boy cover art Electric EmpireNo-No Boy is the nom de plume used by Julian Saporiti for his musical adventures, and ‘Empire Electric’ is the third of these. The project developed as the central component of Saporiti’s PhD at Brown University, drawing on years of fieldwork and research on Asian American history, to write folk songs with uncommon empathy and remarkable protagonists. The songs tell a selection of (based on reality) stories: prisoners at a Japanese American internment camp who start a jazz band, Vietnamese musicians turned on to rock ‘n’ roll by American troops, a Cambodian American painter who painted only the most beautiful landscapes of his war-torn home. 

This might sound a little dry and worthy, a little too much like a history lesson instead of a piece of art. However, the good news, the great news, is that Saporiti dives into his music with a deliciously light touch, seamlessly blending Asian sounds with those of the natural world, and cloaking both in frothy, bouncy melodies that are not dissimilar to those of the best indie pop bands – Belle and Sebastian come to mind, for one. 

There is an overriding thematic consistency here, a musical world of delight to be had, which welcomes the listener in from the first bars. The depth, and sometimes intensity, of the storytelling is treated with delicacy and care and no little poetic sensibility. It results in an album that can be played again and again, with lyrical and musical insights gradually unfolding with each listen.

There are not really any standout tracks, in the sense that they are uniformly excellent; opener ‘The Onion Kings of Ontario!’ sets the scene, paying homage to survivors of the Heart Mountain Japanese American detention camp, who started an onion farm in Oregon. Savoriti wraps the story up in twinkling, chiming, charming music. 

This is quickly followed by ‘Nashville’, which is perhaps the most overtly Americana track on the record, and has an irresistible pulsing beat beneath a hugely catchy earworm of a tune. Each track that follows builds on the musical imprint, making it a musical as well as a lyrical journey.

‘Electric Empire’ is an immensely engaging, uplifting album of songs with artistic depth that is worn so very lightly. A rare treat from start to finish, with a production full of imagination and bravura, it comes highly recommended. 

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